A Slow Death Quickens the Faith

What my grandmother taught me about the right to die

"Preaching to bishops," an anonymous pal among the reverend clergy once told me, "is like farting at skunks. Sooner or later you're going to lose." The longer I live, the more certain I become of the ominous truth of this peculiar bromide.

Lately I've been rereading testimony from public hearings held in 1996 by a congressional subcommittee on assisted suicide. It's a subject I associate with this season of the constricting calendar and shortened days. One rt. reverend bishop, who may as well remain nameless, advised the Honorable Members that "the prolongation of a person's days in a meaningless breathing body is not a witness to the sacredness of life." Furthermore, His Eminence affirmed, "when the options are clear and a patient knows that he or she faces days, weeks, perhaps even a few months of expensive, pain-filled, not always conscious life with no hope of long-range cure, then at least I, as one citizen, want to be given the right, morally and legally, to make a decision for myself. I want the ability to weigh the value of those additional days, weeks, or even months of my existence against the costs that my family would have to pay, both in terms of their financial resources and their emotional reserves."

What His Grace was asking for, of course, was a choice. How very postmodern. Such a comfort to think that even our mortality has its options. The spectacle of a moral leader asking politicos for existential rights has left me a devoutly wary religionist. If the Cross is a symbol of suffering and death, what is the proper icon for Choice? A Question Mark? Say, cast in bronze or cut in stone?


Where choice is enshrined, we must suffer our choices. Where life is sacred, we must suffer our lives.

My grandmother's name was Marvel Grace, and it seemed to suit her; she abounded in both. The year before she would have been 90, on the Sunday after Christmas she had a stroke. It should have killed her--the good death for a good and faithful servant of God. But it didn't. It paralyzed her. It left her bedfast and dependent, a sweet soul and brilliant mind trapped in a meaningless breathing body. She had survived and thrived through two world wars, the Great Depression, Korea, long years of widowhood, the rearing of children, Vietnam, and Vatican II. She said her rosaries, went to daily mass, made novenas, and had a prayer for every contingency. Lose your keys? Say, "Baby Jesus lost and found," and they would turn up. Selling your house? Bury a statue of St. Joseph in the backyard upside down. "The answer to most prayers," she often told me, "is wait and see." In the devout and idolatrous style of the Irish, she kept her faith.

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Thomas Lynch
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